typefaces of our futures past

Yesterday I sent some rough sketches of a new design project I have to my friend Doug. It's a small book about a furniture/interior designer, and I was exploring a few different directions for the cover. I wanted a quick take on what I'd done. Well, Doug definitely told me what's what, which I begrudgingly appreciate. One comment was directed at this choice of title type:
Prisma by Svetoslav Simov
In as polite a way as email commentary can be he cautioned that the mockup, while interesting, might be stepping into Planet of the Apes territory. Harsh.
Now I know my titling looked nothing like that, but I understood what he meant: 1970s absurdo-futuristic. (Ironically, the Planet of the Apes logo was actually designed by a noted typographer, Ed Benguiat, but that didnt help me.)
Another typeface I was playing with was even goofier: Futura Black. I knew it had a pedigree coming out of the Bauhaus, and it was stencil-based, but it still had some kind of...science fiction taint to it. Sure enough, in looking into Futura Black a bit I found it on this obsessively documented site about the 1970s tv show Space: 1999. Seeing it in this context completely scared me off using the face in my project. I was, however, quite taken with Robert Ashley Ruiz and Roberto Baldessari who have compiled much much more than one might think possible about a fictional moonbase set 11 years ago in our former future. I do remember watching the show as a kid but what my 10 year old self couldn't have known was that the type used on the show was so considered.
artwork by Roberto Baldessari
Countdown, Colin Brignall, 1965. Designed for Esselte Letraset 
How is it that we see this and think "computer"? It represents nothing I've actually ever seen come out of a computer. In the 1960s punch cards were the method of programming, no? So what sort of computer produced text that looked like this? Is it just because I know this face is from the mid-60s that I envision the letters as life-sized props in a Courreges fashion spread? Colin Brignall designed numerous other distinctive and recognizable fonts, many of which bring you right back to Xanadu and the Solid Gold dancers. Brignall was awarded a medal by the Type Directors Club in 2000.
Data 70, Bob Newman, 1970. Designed for Esselte Letraset 
Another computer font that somehow seems more credible. Among Newman's oeuvre is the Frankfurter family, one of many fonts that seemed incredibly cheesy until all of a sudden it looked brilliant.

Futura Black, Paul Renner, 1929. Designed for Bauer Type Foundry. 
Another font choice of mine, tried in the furniture book I mentioned above. Although it went nowhere for this project, I'm really beginning to love this face. Interesting how something that started so rationally (from Bauhaus simplified geometry) turned so kooky. Futura Black has many moods depending on context: Jazz-Age, techy, designy, 70s kitsch. And then there's that almost-punny name.

Eurostile Bold Extended (also known as Microgramma), Allesandro Butti and Aldo Novarese, 1962. Designed for the Nebiolo Foundry
A quietly "futuristic" face that makes me think of luxury goods. Eurostile was featured on HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This is one rambling post but all this makes me wonder: What makes a type seem futuristic? In the 20s through the 50s it seemed to be little more than an oblique slant and possibly some zig-zags, fins, or electric "rays." The original Star Trek logo (c1966), above, is quite "old fashioned" for its time (compare Countdown, above from a year earlier) evinces more than a little "Flash Gordon" deco styling. So much more can be said on this...


JMM said...

Re: Countdown, I have to imagine that designers were thinking of what a punchcard font might look like--what kind of font, in other words, could be read by a computer that read punchcards. So they came up with a font whose negative space all looks sort of...punched out.

angela said...

Interesting take on it!

Clay Halliwell said...

Responding to a very old post, but nonetheless...

Countdown and Data 70 were directly modeled after one of the earliest machine-readable fonts, MICR E-13B (also known as the checkbook number font, still in use today!). Possibly the first full font based on this was Westminster.


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